Essay on Poetic Theory

Projective Verse (1950)

by Charles Olson



[1] Olson’s most influential essay, “Projective Verse,” was written and rewritten correspondence with Fances Bolderoff and Robert Creeley, and printed in Poetry New York, no. 3, 1950; reprinted many times, first (in part) in The Autobiography of William Carlos Williams (New York: Random House, 1951), but also in the pamphlet Projective Verse (New York: Totem, 1959), in The New American Poetry 1945-1960, ed. Donald Allen (New York: Grove Press, 1960), in HU, and in SW. The title draws on a number of sources, including “projective geometry” (which Olson knew from his readings in Bonola, Coxeter, and Weyl; see “Equal, That is, to the Real Itself”), and the “projective art” of theater (which Olson taught in 1952 at Black Mountain College; his course description emphasized “the usages of the poet historically and again now as the root of drama” [OJ 2: 27]).

            “Projective Verse” offers an early crystallization of Olson’s poetics, but following Edward Dahlberg’s dictum “ONE PERCEPTION MUST IMMEDIATELY AND DIRECTLY LEAD TO A FURTHER,” Olson continued to press forward in his research. Attempts at a sequel include the 1959 “Letter to Elaine Feinstein” and two separate unpublished essays called “Projective Verse II, “ one dated 1956, the other 1959. In the earlier of these, Olson asks:

Has language only that property, that it enables the poet to traffic in between his self and your self, trading his terms for yours, and getting no more power out of it than your acknowledgment that he speaks for you? But does he, even at his best? Can he, when you are your own involvement, and so engaged, willy-nilly, poems or no poems? You will speak in the next second by words which are, I propose, prior to all you are, and more necessary to you, if you are properly engaged with what it is to be human, than your toes, or your opposable thumb, that if you move as man has since either he or nature raised him to speech, to the capacity to speak, you move with or against yourself—you have more or less life—exactly to the degree that language empowers you. (Storrs, Prose Series)

Notwithstanding his essay’s predominately literary focus, Olson’s ultimate interest in the concept of “Projective Verse” is phenomenological, something that becomes especially clear in an unpublished prose piece from 1965, “The Projective, in Poetry and in Thought; and the Paratactic.” Here Olson develops a notion of “practice” that far outstrips the emphasis on verse-making of the 1950 essay:

my interest, in adding the paratactic to any previous though on the projective (prospective    prescriptive    eternal) is to assume, by experience, that the poetry and the thought called purposive behavior    “practice”    requires some different mode of action—activity literally, living around the clock, eating even, making love differently    finding yourself engaged in an impossible war with the realistic, and with realistic people­—

. . . my . . . point would be . . . that syntax . . . or the order of all movement . . . has a name for itself     parataxis

Aristotle called it the way beads are strung on a string one bead and thread after another   And there is that sense that it is one foot after the previous foot that nothing doesn’t happen expect as succession, and with that order of succession in time… known only if you do yourself place one next thing after one you have definitely expressed the placing of, like your foot the step before—etc    the succession in time being solely the experience in terms of a different & known & palpable order—physical, literally, & temporal . . .

Something like it anyway wld be the dream of the success of what is also the usefulness, of what I have called the Projective (Storrs, Prose Series)

[2] Identified by Ralph Maud as René Nelli, who asks in Poésie overte poésie fermée, “Mais y a-t—il une poésie ouverte sur le reel et un poésie fermée sur les mots? — “But is there a poetry open on the real and a poetry closed on the words?” (Olson’s Reading, pp. 84 and 277 n. 29).

[3] Keats’s description of Wordsworth, from a letter to Richard Woodhouse of 27 October 1818:

As to the poetical Character (I mean that sort, of which, if I am anything, I am a member; that sort distinguished from the Wordsworthian, or egotistical Sublime; which is a thing per se, and stands alone,) it is not itself—it has no self­—it is everything and nothing—It has no character—it enjoys light and shade; it lives in gusto, be it foul or fair, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated—It has as much delight in conceiving an Iago as an Imogen. What shocks the virtuous philosopher delights the chameleon poet. (The Letters of John Keats, p. 184)

[4] The year 1910 (Olson’s own birth year) is in many ways a magnet, accruing facts the way a magnet gathers iron filings. In his 1946 poem “La Préface,” Olson drew the date thus:

                        ( ) 1910 (

It is not obscure. We are the new born…
The closed parenthesis reads: the dead bury the dead,
                                                                    and it is not very interesting
Open, the figure stands at the door, horror his
and gone, possessed, o new Osiris, Odysseus ship.

                                                                            (CP 47)


John Clarke in his notes for Olson’s fall 1964 Mythology Seminar provides an alternative gloss:

            Then the psychic awakening came:

1903      Gertrude Stein, Quod Erat Demonstrandum

(pub. 1950 as Things as They Are)

1909      Stein, Three Lives!

Pound, Exultations, Personae

The Phenomenology of Perception of the 20th c. ended the Neolithic period, 1910—the return of the possibility of a paratactic poetics, as with Pleistocene man, when poetry and mythology were one, mythos-logos intact.

[5] Writing Robert Creeley on 22 June 1950, Olson has: “THE TROCHEE: with it, a new language, for USE, made USA (where’d he get it, the trochee? Hunch: out of Miss Sappho by Seafarer” (O/RC 1: 140). The “he” here is Pound, who has in Canto 81, “To break the pentameter, that was the first heave.”

[6] In an early version of his essay “Human Universe,” Olson writes:

To repossess ourselves of a methodology of expression which shall be the equal of the laws which so richly determine the original function which we call human life—this, surely, is the task. And I have elsewhere argued that the first principle is, that if you propose to transfer power you must manage in the process of the transfer a kinetic at least the equal of the thing from which you begin. Which is why we will do nothing until we front what we are, precisely, the conditions of a human being, what is, exactly, the nature of a human life. (Glover diss., p. 271)

[7] In the third of three principles given in “A Retrospect,” e.g., “As regarding rhythm: to compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome (The Literary Essays of Ezra Pound, ed. T.S. Eliot [New York: New Directions, 1968], p. 3).

[8] In a letter dated 5 June 1950, by way of distinguishing “from” from “technical wonder,” the latter of which he describes as

Absolute bull/shit. That is: the intelligence that had touted Auden as being a technical wonder, etc. Lacking all grip on the worn and useless character of his essence: thought. An attitude that puts weight, first: on form/more than say: what you have above: will never get to: content. Never in god’s world. Anyhow, form has now become so useless a term/ that I blush to use it. I wd imply a little of Stevens’ use (the things created in a poem and existing there…) & too, go over into: the possible casts of method for a way into/a ‘subject’: to make it clear: that form is never more than an extension of content. An enacted or possible ‘stasis’ for thought. (O/RC 1: 78-79)

[9] Apparently in conversation. John Cech in Charles Olson and Edward Dahlberg: A Portrait of a Friendship (Victoria, B.C.: English Literary Studies, University of Victoria, 1982) quotes an unpublished loose manuscript note of Olson’s from 1945, “Go to the extreme of your imagination and go on from there: fail large, never succeed small. Again ED makes sense: one intuition must only lead to another farther place” (pp. 88-89).

[10] Anonymous poem from the sixteenth century.

[11] Lifted by Olson (along with other lines) form “Mouths Biting Empty Air,” an unpublished prose piece dated 27 October 1946, now at Storrs.

[12] A Gloucester fisherman named also in “Letter 20” of the Maximus poems (MAX 89, 91), in “The Morning News” (CP 122), and in Olson’s 1936 “Journal of Swordfishing Cruise on the Doris M. Hawes” (OJ 7:10, 19).

[13] Hart Crane and Ernest Fenollosa (the latter discusses syntax in The Chinese Written Character). The criticism of Crane was later lodged by Olson against Robin Blaser as well—wit, “Id’ trust you anywhere with image, but you’re got no syntax.” See See Minutes of the Charles Olson Society, no. 8 (“A Special Issue for the Robin Blaser Conference”), p. 13.

[14] Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night 1.1.1-17.

[15] “Spiritus” —both breath and spirit.

[16] Opening line of Olson’s poem “The Kingfishers” (CP 86)

[17] From Olson’s “The Praises” (CP 98)

[18] A Japanese writer of the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, also known as Motekiyo. In 1961, after reading a version of Seami’s Yashima  in Origin, Olson wrote Cid Corman, “If you find anyone who has translated Seami’s Autobiography literally & entirely I shd be obliged to hear of it. I remain convinced of its importance (reading his new play you published emphasizes again what a flawless poet he is” (O/CC 2 : 173).

[19] The work of a loosely affiliated group of poets first published by Louis Zukofsky in a special issue of Poetry magazine in 1931.

[20] The Trojan Women By Euripides.

[21] One of the Noh plays translated by Pound, whose introductory note declares, “The play shows the relation of the early Noh to the God-dance” (Ezra Pound: Translations [New York: New Directions, 1963], p. 308).

[22] T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”



Charles Olson, “Projective Verse” from Collected Prose, edited by Donald Allen and Benjamin Friedlander, published by the University of California Press. Copyright © the Estate of Charles Olson. Reprinted by permission of the Estate of Charles Olson.
Originally Published: October 13, 2009

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Charles Olson was an innovative poet and essayist whose work influenced numerous other writers during the 1950s and 1960s. In his influential essay on projective (or open) verse, Olson asserts that "a poem is energy transferred from where the poet got it (he will have some several causations), by way of the poem itself to, all the way over to, the reader. Okay. Then the poem itself must, at all points, be a high energy-construct . . .

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